As Advent approaches and it gets darker in the northern hemisphere, the daylight in South Africa, where I live, stretches longer and longer. I haul out my Advent candles, which in the summer heat often end up slumped over by Christmas Day, and place them on the table.
I need the light.
South Africa is running out of electricity. There are many reasons for this: corruption, yes, and also a power grid that was originally built by a racist government to only serve the needs of the small, white population. The current solution to this problem is to purposefully switch off the power in different sections of the country for scheduled portions of the day.
I picture it like we’re playing volleyball, except with a fiery ball of electricity. No one can hold it too long. We share the blackouts and share the electricity, passing the power back and forth, all the while sharing the hope that this dance will keep the grid from collapsing. They call it loadshedding.
We have an app. It pings each morning with the regularity of a weather announcer, telling us how many hours of electricity we will have. Some days, there are no blackouts. Other days, we run to charge laptops and cellphones when we get out of bed so we can keep working. Sometimes the constant power surges fry the old electric parts in our small town, leading to days without power while they rig a solution. In order to keep our fridge running, we snake an extension cord through our window to our neighbors who have a generator.
We live on a piece of land between two communities that were separated for years by the apartheid government. We’re living here on purpose, trying to figure out what it means to build a home that is welcoming to all of our neighbors. It sounds very noble, but sometimes life feels like a question on a test that God is posing to me. One that I feel I am constantly failing. It looks deceptively simple: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” But what does that even mean, God?
Mothering two white boys in this space feels overwhelming, every parenting choice smashed between the Instagram-perfect lives of mothers in the town up the hill, and the reality of mothers in the valley below (who are just worried about things like getting their kids into a school where the teachers will actually teach them to read).
Sometimes living here is the joyful gathering of friends and neighbors from different languages and cultures laughing around a meal. And sometimes it is moments of paralysis in the grocery aisle wondering if it’s okay to spend this amount of money to bake chocolate chip cookies, when the cost is what our neighbor’s gardener gets paid for a whole day of work. Flipping back and forth between these two worlds is dizzying, especially when my pursuit of justice casts everything in perfect black and white, light and shadow. It’s either right or wrong, it’s this or that. There was a right answer back there in the grocery store aisle, and I probably picked the wrong one.
When I teach Sunday school, one of the six-year-olds’ prayer requests is for loadshedding to end. “Loadshedding ruins everything,” he moans, flopping on the floor. I can relate. All of my husband’s nostalgic Minnesotan Christmas food requires an oven, but I have no clue if there will be electricity come Christmas Day.
Yet it’s not just about that. It’s also the milk going sour in our fridge, the meat rotting. My imagination, now started on this track, keeps spiraling. It’s the giant cooling tanks at the dairy farms slowly warming up, the cost of food shooting higher. It’s the missed work hours, the silent factories. It’s my fear that our four-year-old will need a nebuliser in the middle of the night, and when I flick the light switch, nothing will happen. It’s the fear that the democracy people fought for can’t last, the fear that there is no “rainbow nation,” just rich people and poor people.
“I always forget about loadshedding now,” one of the other six-year-olds announces. “We got solar.”
There is another fear of mine. That living in this most unequal country will get me used to just looking after myself: my immediate family, my children. Maybe there isn’t anything wrong with spending our relative riches on something like solar panels. Honestly, if we could save up enough, we’d get some. But then I wonder what it would be like, when the power blinks out, to stand in a bright kitchen next to our humming fridge and look at the valley below, bathed in pitch darkness. I wonder if that’s the light I really want. Then I circle back to my four-year old’s latest hospital stay for respiratory issues, his constant battles with pneumonia. I think about knowing I could plug in a nebuliser whenever I wanted, and it would come right on. There’s a correct choice here, I’m sure. A just choice. And I’m probably getting it wrong again.
I usually think of Mary’s song in Luke as a song of justice: the poor being fed, the rich going away empty.1 I’m uncomfortable with it, because what is good news to the poor doesn’t always sound like good news to the rich like me. But what strikes me when I read it again this year is the way the song breathes with humility, and, yes, mercy. God has seen his people in their humble state. God has remembered mercy.
He has not ignored or forgotten them. He has seen. He has remembered.
Maybe doing justice cannot be separated from loving mercy and walking humbly. Maybe to love mercy is to wake up in the morning knowing that while my choices matter, they are also not the ultimate factor in the story of the world. God is on his throne, the light has shined in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
My preschoolers fight over who will light our Advent candles as the power blinks off at 6 p.m. sharp. “Looooadshedding!” they chorus, as they always do. The sunset is spilling through the windows and dancing with the candlelight on our supper table as we take turns answering our Advent question: Where did we see God today? There is something so precious about seeing their freckled faces by candlelight. Suddenly they aren’t just interruptions in need of a mother to sort out their squabbles, or tie their shoes, or fix their broken Lego cars. They’re precious children. My precious children.
Where did I see God today? Suddenly I feel the question flip over in my mind, like Mary’s upside down song: Where did God see me? In all my striving and anxiety and fear of making wrong choices, God saw me. In my anger and judgment and pride, God saw me. He saw me, and he saw my neighbours—the ones up the hill and the ones in the valley. He saw us all as I see my boys right now, awash in his tender mercy like candlelight.
Perhaps the mercy of God is more generous than I give it credit for. Perhaps it is not trapped by my black and white thinking. Maybe it’s like the long extension cord, snaking from my neighbour’s generator through my window, running outside the lines, sharing the abundance, rather than hoarding it. Perhaps there is more than one way to answer the questions life sends. Perhaps, like in Zechariah’s prayer,2 God’s mercy is like the South African summer sun that keeps rising, giving light to all of us who sit in darkness and the shadows of death, even when the electric lights blink off.
- Luke 1: 46-55. ↩︎
- “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1: 76-79). ↩︎
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